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Hagerstown might have to manage its own city elections

County board says it won't handle city voting unless dates are changed to coincide with statewide, national polling

County board says it won't handle city voting unless dates are changed to coincide with statewide, national polling

October 27, 2008|By DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN -- The City of Hagerstown could be forced to manage its own elections - at a cost of more than $60,000 - if the City Council refuses to change the dates that municipal elections are held to coincide with the gubernatorial or presidential ones.

Dorothy Kaetzel, election director for the Washington County Board of Elections, said Thursday that board officials are too busy with other commitments to manage the city's primary and general elections, which are held in years that do not coincide with gubernatorial and presidential election years.

As a result, board officials will transfer the duties to the city after the next municipal election in 2009, she said.

The $60,000-plus cost would include "the establishment of a trained city election board staff competent to take on the administrative burdens of conducting those elections ... (and) establishing 14 polling places for the conduct of both primary and general elections," Kaetzel wrote in a letter dated July 14 to Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II.

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"Our state work has increased so much, it is a burden to do the city's elections," Kaetzel said Thursday. "... It was an easier task in the past because our workload wasn't a problem."

Kaetzel said the logical alternative for the city would be for the council to change the municipal elections to coincide with the presidential elections. That way, the city would save money because the taxpayers wouldn't have to fund a separate election, she said.

Kaetzel said the city paid about $60,000 to hold its primary and general elections in 2005. That amount included the cost of printing a separate ballot and paying election workers to manage the election. During gubernatorial or presidential elections, the state picks up a majority of the cost, she said.

In addition to saving money, the city likely would have better voter turnout by moving the elections, Kaetzel said. Twenty-three percent of registered voters turned out for the last city election in 2005, while the presidential election in 2004 had a 75 percent turnout, she said. Fifty-three percent of the voters turned out during the last gubernatorial election in 2006.

"I'd rather have 25 percent (of the electorate) vote knowledgeably than 75 percent just to come out and pull a lever for a party," said Councilman Lewis C. Metzner, who opposes changing the dates of municipal elections. "... I appreciate everyone's input on what the city should do. It should be clear this council didn't set the elections."

Metzner said he doubted whether changing the timing of the elections would cost the city more than the $60,000 it does now and noted there is no way to predict "what anything will cost five years from now."

Metzner said it was important to keep the elections as they are because people would be able to focus only on the city's issues. If residents felt strongly about changing the election dates, they could challenge the existing system with a referendum, he said.

Metzner also responded to a letter dated Oct. 3 that Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth M. Morgan sent to Kaetzel. In the letter, Morgan said school officials take "no position on this issue," but she expressed concern that nontraditional election days "could cause some disruption to the school day for both students and school system employees, and increase security risks at those schools utilized as polling locations."

Boyd Michael, deputy superintendent of Washington County Public Schools, spoke Friday on Morgan's behalf.

He said students don't attend school on traditional election days, but classes are in session during city elections. As a result, Michael said, school officials would have to beef up security to prevent outsiders from wandering the halls.

"We'll work with the city," Michael said. "We'll be very cooperative, but things have changed and we want to maintain security."

Metzner said he was confident that the city could work something out with the school system.

"I have no doubt it won't be an issue with the schools," he said.

Councilman Martin E. Brubaker and Councilwomen Kelly S. Cromer, Penny M. Nigh and Alesia D. Parson-McBean could not be reached for comment Friday.

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